Old New York
December 18, 2012 | by André Aciman
The Sixth Avenue El train has just cleared the steep bend off Third Street. It is now picking up speed and will, any moment now, bolt uptown. Next stop, Eighth Street, then past Jefferson Market, Fourteenth Street, then all the way north till it reaches Fifty-Ninth Street. But perhaps it is not racing up at all but grinding to a stop after that notoriously difficult curve before Bleeker Street. It’s hard to tell. The blue lettering on the train’s marker light must spell something, but it’s hard to decipher this as well. Under the el two vehicles seem to know where they’re headed. To the left of the train, on the corner of Sixth and Cornelia, a scrawny, wedge-shaped, twelve-story high-rise strains to look taller than it is. Its numberless lighted windows suggest that, despite darkness everywhere, this is by no means nighttime, but evening, maybe early evening. The building’s residents are probably preparing dinner, some just walking in after work, others listening to the radio, the children are doing homework.
This is 1922, and this is Sloan country. The Sixth Avenue El no longer exists as John Sloan painted it in The City from Greenwich Village. Sloan must have worshiped the el, and his many portraits of it pulsate with the brassy, vigorous thrill of an overconfident, urban painter who never spurned the clunky, steely structures punctuating life in the city. Under his brushstrokes, though, the here-and-now Village suddenly acquires a lyrical, beguiling, almost dreamlike cast, and its crepuscular inflection suggests that maybe, just maybe, Sloan might have been trying to capture the city as it looked on that day, in that year, from his window, sensing, as rumors must have already been flying then, that the el didn’t have long to live. “The picture,” he wrote, “makes a record of the beauty of the older city which is giving way to the chopped-out towers of the modern New York.”
Did Sloan like the el—could anyone really have liked the ugly, thundering, mastodontic el—or was he, like so many of us, struggling to preserve the old—ugly, junky, beaten-up old that it was? The scrap metal of the el, they say, would eventually be sold and shipped to Japan; Japan would then bomb us with arms made from it. Most likely an apocryphal tale.
I am standing before this painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and can’t seem to get away from Sloan’s portrait of the view from his window. The city has changed a lot since. And yet, if you remove the el and add more traffic and lights and more people, this corner of New York City is really not so different. Bleecker Street is still there, Cornelia still there, the Woolworth and Singer buildings loom fluorescent in the distance, and in the evening the store lights along the sidewalks still glisten and beckon to those who pass by and are sometimes reluctant to rush home and look for a sporadic errand if only to kill time. This is the gloaming, the twilit, two-faced hour between day and night when the city promises things that are at once scary and enchanting, because our bearings are thrown off, and everything seems so timeless yet so thoroughly time-bound that we drift into phantom zones. Like Edgar Allan Poe, the nineteenth-century poet Charles Baudelaire, Poe’s French translator, was always stirred by this gaslit hour of the day and, in his tepid love for Paris, must have longed for an older Paris or for imaginary vistas of Poe’s New York, the way Poe himself nursed a spectral sense of an imaginary Paris. Baudelaire was doing what his greatest critic, the German Walter Benjamin, found himself doing sixty years later when he ambled along the streets of a revamped, updated Paris, all the while seeking out haunting reminders of Baudelaire’s disappeared Paris. Benjamin had every reason to borrow Baudelaire’s longing for New York. His escaped German Jewish friends had taken refuge there and kept clamoring for him to join them. Benjamin never made it across the Atlantic. When he finally realized he wasn’t going to be able to escape the Nazis, he took his own life.
Sloan’s portrait is my imaginary version of a disappeared New York. In the city, we always tread on others’ footprints. We never walk alone. All of us have followed in the footsteps of an artist in the city. All of us have followed a stranger in the crowd at least once in our life. All of us have retraced our own footsteps many years later and been in the same place twice and, like Whitman, “[thought] of time—of all that retrospection.”
Sloan may never have known what his painting would mean in the years to come, but it resonates with the fear that the city—as someone said of his pictures—changes even before the paint dries, that all things die, that the el itself would soon be taken down, and that this was a snapshot of a world already meant to be looked back on someday. He was painting it for his afterself. Art was Sloan’s notation system, a notation system meant for someone he might no longer be but hadn’t quite become, someone to whom he needed to communicate his phantom thoughts of the el in the clearest possible manner in case that afterself might no longer speak the same language. The vision of a city “now” that would soon become a city “then” is, like twilight itself, a mirage caught between two illusory temporal zones: the not yet and the no more.
Art is how we quarrel with time. We burrow between two moments, neither of which stays long enough, and make room for a third called art. Like the stereoscope, which uses “two eyepieces to impart a three-dimensional effect to two photographs of the same scene taken at slightly different angles” (American Heritage Dictionary), Sloan’s painting is lodged between then and now. Think of Thunder Bay Press books. Paris, Then and Now; Rome, Then and Now; New York, Then and Now. Each of these volumes asks us to consider two images of the same spot taken a century apart. We stare at the similarities and the differences, unable to envision the two simultaneously—stereoscopically—and are forced to flip back and forth, and back and forth again, trying to capture the meaning, the transit of time.
It is never clear whether it is permanence or change in these contrasting pairs that we long to grasp. Chances are that the moment we decide it is change we are zeroing in on, we will instantly find signs of permanence, whereas when we wish to see that nothing changed, we’ll spot all manner of differences. If part of us longs to live at the turn of the nineteenth century, another is grateful we’re in the twenty-first. If part of us loves the present, another yearns the past, the future, anything but the here and now.
What we’re looking for, what we’re trying to grasp, is not there, will never be there; yet looking for just that thing is what made some turn to art. Art is not about things, but about the remembrance and the interpretation of things, not about time, but about the inflection of time. Art sees footprints, not feet, luster, not light, resonance, not sound.
As I look at my volume of New York, Then and Now I am reminded of the ultimate paradox: that those who were alive in a photograph taken a century ago are all dead, but that if the city lives on and scarcely changes, then perhaps those who died many decades ago are not dead at all but have come back to us in the more recent photograph, because if the city never really ages, we don’t age, and we don’t die.
I stare at John Sloan’s picture and see the city in 1822, when there was no el, in 1922 when indeed there was one, and in 2022 when the memory of the el will long have faded. And suddenly I am struck by one scary thought. That I’m absent from all the three!
But then I think of Bleeker Street with its gas jets, and its shoppers, and its stores that are just about to close in the evening and I know I’ve always been there and can never leave.
André Aciman is the author of Eight White Nights, Call Me by Your Name, Out of Egypt, and False Papers, and is the editor of The Proust Project. His essay collection, Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, is now out in paperback from Picador. He teaches comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.